Sunday, October 9, 2011

Areopagitica by John Milton

Source of book: Free on my Kindle via

Banned books week was September 25 through October 1 this year. I have decided to observe this literary holiday each year from here on out by reading a banned book. There appear to be enough to keep me occupied.

First, a distinction needs to be made between banned books and “challenged” books. In order to qualify as a banned book, the book must have been forbidden publication or possession by a government. In contrast, a book that parents or others seek to remove from a school curriculum is merely “challenged”, even if the book is in fact removed.

In my opinion, there is a difference between the two. Not all books are appropriate for children or teens, and those who wish to read a challenged book anyway can presumably locate a library or book store. Those books actually banned were denied to all unless they were willing and able to break the law.

While I have thus limited my list to truly banned books, I include books that have been banned by any government, at any time in history.

To kick things off, I chose to read Areopagitica, one of the few books to be intentionally written as a banned book. Milton wrote this pamphlet in response to the Licensing Act of 1643, which required that all books to be published must first be pre-approved by a Parliamentary committee. Thus, Milton, by publishing his pamphlet without permission, set out to violate the law in protest against it. Milton had previously met with Galileo at the time Italy imprisoned him for his new views of astronomy, and this greatly influenced Milton’s views on speech.

Despite Milton’s efforts, the law remained in effect until the Glorious Revolution in 1694, when broad freedoms were instituted by William and Mary. Although it took 50 years, Milton’s views eventually became mainstream in England, and eventually were enshrined in the United States Constitution as part of the First Amendment.

Areopagitica is considered one of the most eloquent and influential defenses of freedom of press ever written. However, it also is an unexpectedly good argument in favor of freedom of thought.

Milton makes the following arguments. First, censorship in the form of pre-approval did not exist in classical Greek and Roman civilization. Milton traces its history throughout this period and shows that the law in question was far more strict than that in place in ancient history. Milton then shows that the first use of a pre-approval statute was by the Inquisition. At this time in history, England, relatively recently severed from the Catholic Church, considered itself to be the antithesis of the Inquisition, but was taking the exact same course of action.

Milton’s second argument grows naturally out of the first. He argues that no harm results from letting books go published, even if they contain errors. Now, Milton was not a libertarian. He was willing to accept that the government might choose to ban a book after its publication if it were truly libelous or otherwise harmful – and the government could round up all the copies and destroy them if necessary. Milton obviously never envisioned the internet.

However, despite this incomplete vision of free speech, Milton was still far ahead of his time. He believed that even error could be useful to the thinking man. Very little ever written could be considered as unadulterated truth, and the wise man trains himself to distinguish truth from error by practice and by absorbing knowledge from a variety of sources.

Milton effectively contrasts the use by St. Paul of quotes from heathen Greek poets with Julian the Apostate forbidding Christians from reading heathen works. He correctly concludes that those who wish to narrow the range of knowledge do so that they might better control their followers. Governments particularly are likely to ban books for this very reason.  This despite the fact that the very act of banning tends to enhance the cachet of the work. As Milton put it, “The punishing of wits enhances their authority.”

I particularly enjoyed Milton’s amazing discourse on the true nature of the knowledge of good and evil. They are intertwined, not separate. A man cannot truly know good unless he also knows evil. Furthermore, a man who has never been tempted is not good, but merely untested.

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

A person, in Milton’s view, becomes wiser as he or she acquires knowledge, and sifts it to find its wisdom. By grappling with the truth and with falsehood, a person becomes ever more able to distinguish them. In contrast, it is an insult to those who love learning and wisdom out of their love for God and for the truth to distrust their judgment in favor of the wisdom of a political committee.

Finally, Milton argues that much good will be lost by the pre-approval of books.

"And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye."

Those who sit in judgment are more likely to choose the familiar and safe over the new and provocative, thus missing out on truth. Milton believed that it was arrogant to assume that all truth was known, and that anything new was therefore error.

“Truth is compared in Scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression, they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

Thus, in Milton’s view, it is necessary that there be a continual exploration and discussion of the truth, or it becomes stale and ineffective.

Milton’s conclusion is the desire of all of us who desire both freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

“Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties!”

Bonus quote for my theologically minded friends:

“A man may be a heretic in the truth; and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.”


  1. Happy to discover your blog (came here through a link to your post on patriarchy) and especially happy to browse your posts on literature and music. As a little aside, I'm wondering if you could tell me how you read Project Gutenberg books on your Kindle. I'm having trouble accessing their Kindle files on my Kindle Fire.

    1. The Kindle Fire doesn't play well with Gutenberg, unfortunately. I use two e-reader type devices: a regular Kindle 2, and an Android tablet. Gutenberg does have instructions up on its site for a work around, but it looks like a pain. Better to just get an e-ink Kindle, or a Nexus 7, if you want color and internet.

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog! Feel free to drop by and comment. I love to hear from other readers.

    2. Thanks! After reading this, I did figure out how to use the Kindle files off of Gutenberg on my non-Kindle devices. I like that format, because it lets me highlight and take notes, so I'm glad I can use it still, even if not directly on my Kindle.

      On another note, thanks for the introduction to Milton's work. I don't see myself getting all the way through it for a while, but I'm enjoying popping back to it once in a while and reading a sentence or two to chew on for a while.

  2. I finally got around to reading this one. It's purpose may have been to address the Licensing Act of 1643, but much of it is still relevant today. There's a lot of great quotes in this short piece. I also liked:

    "We do not see that, while we still affect by all means a rigid external formality, we may as soon fall into a conforming stupidity, a stark and dead congealment of wood and hay and stubble, forced and frozen together, which is more to the sudden degenerating of a Church than many subdichotomies of petty schisms."

    Not sure I would have found this one without your review.